Ten years ago, Tewkesbury Abbey was surrounded by muddy brown flood waters. Following the wettest June on record, in which tens of thousands of buildings were flooded, from Scotland to the Midlands, an extreme weather event hit the Cotswolds on 20 July 2007. The region was already saturated, drains were overflowing and run-offs ineffective. At the confluence of the rivers Severn and Avon, Tewkesbury was swamped. Within hours it was completely cut off. The flood waters breached the Mythe waterworks, depriving 350,000 people of running water.
Tewkesbury is my hometown. Seasonal flooding is a fact of life here. I grew up used to the advance and retreat of waters, measuring it against five bar gates or road signs, the high watermark a line of debris in the hedgerows. But the rain on the afternoon of 20 July 2007 was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. In nearby Pershore, they recorded ten millimetres of rainfall an hour.
After the rain stopped there was a strange quiet. The usual sounds of urban life had ceased: no traffic, no visitors – everywhere silence but for the whine of car and burglar alarms. Residents walked up and down the flooded streets, asking for news or offering help and support. A walk to the shops revealed the previously imperceptible rise and fall of the level of Church Street, where water topped my wellington boots and reached my thighs outside number 22.
Three people died. Some residents were out of their homes for up to two years, owing to a shortage of contractors, as well as delays and disputes with insurance companies. Many lived in caravans or mobile homes by the roadside. National chains, such as Marks and Spencer, left the town. Ian Nicholson, the owner/manager of Tewkesbury’s only bookshop, Alison’s, says the high street has yet to recover to its pre-flood and pre-recession level.
Tewkesbury’s problems began before the 2007 floods. John Moore’s Portrait of Elmbury (published in 1945, so already nostalgic) describes a vibrant, almost affluent town between the wars, the trading centre for the surrounding villages and their prosperous farming communities. Like many rural market towns, Tewkesbury has been badly affected by the decline of English agriculture.
For years, Tewkesbury has had more empty shops, and more charity shops, than average. Many people prefer the convenience of Cheltenham’s retail parks, or shopping online. The town has a higher proportion of people aged over sixty-five than either the national or county averages. Care providers and nursing homes now sell their services from offices in the town centre.
James Meek observed in the LRB in 2008 that some of the most prominent members of the community, during and after the catastrophic floods, were ‘localists’, ‘convinced that local people know better than outside experts – even on highly technical questions – what happens in their town, and what is best for their town; convinced that public servants, the bureaucrats and Westminster politicians, are being especially mean to Tewkesbury, and doing it on purpose’. This mood of suspicion, even hostility, to expertise, pre-empted the national mood that led to Britain’s vote to leave the European Union (Tewkesbury voted in favour of Brexit by 56 per cent to 44).
The problem is one heard throughout the West, as people feel the system is either rigged against them or impervious to their needs. As a proportion of their income, multinationals like Amazon pay only a fraction of the tax or overheads of Tewkesbury’s small, independent traders. Locals still complain about building on the flood plains; further development on higher ground disrupts the flow of groundwater and makes flooding more likely. Enormous amounts have been invested in improved flood defences for both the town and Mythe waterworks, and efforts have been made to regenerate the town centre and riverfront. Yet the council’s widening of pedestrian zones and obscure ‘crossing-points’ on the high street have been condemned as an expensive waste of money.
Local community projects have met with greater support. The Battlefield Society has decorated the town with the standards of the men who fought in the 1471 Battle of Tewkesbury. Local businesses and members of the 1471 Fraternity raised considerable sums for two large oak statues on the main road from Gloucester.
Nicholson is anxious that Brexit will delay economic recovery further. Some I spoke with are concerned by the government’s Brexit strategy (or lack of one). Others are sceptical about the ability of politicians to change anything at all. Moore observed in Portrait of Elmbury that he was describing ‘the sort of life that will never come back’. Opponents of Brexit say that its advocates are engaged in just such a futile attempt to turn back the clock. But there are those in Tewkesbury, and elsewhere, who fear their futures are being decided by forces over which they have no control.